Sudden Reflections on Finding Again Dae Soen Sa Nim’s Morning Bell Chant: Its Compassionate Zen — Great Love, Great Sadness

Holding beads, perceiving the universe; with emptiness as the string, there is nothing unconnected.  — The Morning Bell Chant

It’s a chilly and gray morning in Athens.

As a meditation and in just daily training, on the road, I am listening today again — after some months apart from it — to Zen Master Seung Sahn chanting the Morning Bell Chant, its heart and soul. It has plunged me into hours of returning to this chant today. It caused me to read the English translation of the words, first time in an age, and they really hit as if for the first time. I never really regarded the texts much at all in this. They call for silent meditation in remote mountain locations, seeing the red head of the crane perched way high in the evergreen vastness. And yet, they call for compassionate action for sentient beings, no matter the methods; and yet it struck me even further how the Chant calls for precepts, the 48 Precepts of the bodhisattva way. Somehow, I didn’t get this email all those years. It’s the chant that remembers the precepts. I never got that point so clearly before, it never seemed to matter.

What a nice revelation this is.

It is so important for me to connect and reconnect with this treasure-chant recording at least twice a year, or more, if introducing it to one of the practitioners, to this particular recording of it: a living Sutra, an ancient Sanskrit-Sino-Korean text sung out by a monk of great attainment who has then been in unexpected defensive war and maybe had to kill (he would never answer, like in great talk I heard recorded in Poland). It is a song for mathematical and astronomical insight and endless unshakeable compassion, functioning together. This is not merely cant. As I said, it has this astronomical, even mathemtical dimension. There are vast numbers and distant galaxies in the very words! So, it appeals to rationality. “We are supposed to work with that, not avoid it. But also not believe it,” it says. The science of the Delphic “Know thyself.” (γνῶθι σεαυτόν, transliterated: gnōthi seauton) From the stars to the atoms to the nature of Self. Science.

But this is Zen. This is the great turning-around of awareness to the root of awareness. The “don’t know” is the “what?” about what/who makes thoughts and sees thoughts and sees suffering, and that hears, and that tastes, etc. “until no end of old age and death, and also no extinction of them.” (Heart Sutra, this time) “What am I?” It is a stunning expression, this chant by him. (For some reason, I still cannot embed it properly here.) ((Don’t listen to the group recording, but the second one — Dae Soen Sa Nim solo)

https://kwanumzen.org/resources-collection/2017/9/6/morning-bell-chant

Here is a brief commentary: The whole thing starts with a promise, vowing. The very first word of the entire 15-minute chant is “vow,” — won cha! — a promise, a precept. This chant is about ultimately doing something, or wishing some occasion to occur:

Our vow:
may the sound of this bell
spread throughout the universe,
make all the hell of dark metal bright, relieve the three realms of suffering, shatter the hell of swords,
and bring all beings to enlightenment.

The chant opens with an acknowledgment that sufferings and hells exist — and that idea will develop later — and that this can be overcome. Hearing will be key to that: “may the sound of this bell” is expressed first, kwan um. This is why our windows are open during sitting at Zen Center Regensburg. Kwan Um. “May the sound of…” Everything is “this bell.”

But the Chant must give a diagnosis of what creates these hells, if indeed they “exist”, as it has posited. What kinds of “hells”? It does this by revealing to us immediately the highest truths of modern psychotherapy and neuroscience, even if it was all boiled down to just this one super-simple sentence, its vocabulary accessible to anyone:

If you wish to understand thoroughly
All Buddhas past, present, and future,
You should view the nature of the universe

As created by mind alone. (emphasis mine)

Now, that world of suffering hells, created and populated by thinking and passion and desire, was expressed in music by Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Even just the First Movement. All of this uncertainty and suffering and fear is created by mind alone. It is just a modern Hieronymous Bosch-like depiction of the spooky realms of created hell-spaces. Such terror there!

But how to get out? How to transmute this freedom Mahler attains at the end here? How sustain it in everyday life? It cannot always be this vast dramatic expression to attain release from the mind-created hells based so much on fear of death, as the Movement opens. The funeral march and the raging against it, luxuriating in this mind-splitting yearning for some universal peace or passion, finding his cheap resolutions. Something’s got to go beyond this. What is it?

The silences. Meditation.

And anyway, where does this lead, this scientific assessment of the creations of reality, and their illusoriness? “Everything is created by mind alone.” It is pretty total. There’s nothing to further conclude, after that statement. Game over, philosophically. How take that into the world, even after attaining that? Attaining that everything is merely creation of mind alone, what then? Stay in that retreat-bliss forever? (Man, were it so!) No, the Chant expresses more vows, a path of clarity out of Mahler’s always-untenable truces:

Vowing openly with all world beings,
Entering together Amita’s ocean of great vows, Continuing forever to save sentient beings,
You and I simultaneously attain the way of Buddha. Become one: infinite time, infinite space Buddha.

Become one with the western pure land,
a world of utmost bliss.
The thirty-six billion, one hundred nineteen thousand, five hundred names of the Buddha are all the same name.

Great love, great compassion, Amita Buddha. Become one with the western pure land,
a world of utmost bliss.

This Buddha’s body is long and wide. This auspicious face is without boundary and this golden color shines everywhere, pervading the entire universe.

This kind of religion-type talking doesn’t really wear well, but it’s mostly just the folk roots bleeding up into the chant. The Higher Being stuff. Whatever. But there is, again,

Vowing openly with all world beings,
Entering together Amita’s ocean of great vows, Continuing forever to save sentient beings,
You and I simultaneously attain the way of Buddha. Become one: infinite time, infinite space Buddha.

“You and I simultaneously attain the way of Buddha.” And it is so powerful how the chant ends, in Dae Soen Sa Nim’s version — which is itself abbreviated from what many Korean monks do in their temples alone every day, which are much longer. There is more vowing to practice and compassionate action. First, its Sanskrit roots are revealed, for it begins with classic neti neti dislocation of conceptual thinking, vastness, uncountability:

No one can say, nor say its opposite.
No one can say, because Buddha is like the Ganges’s innumerable grains of sand, or the infinite moments in all time,
or innumerable dust particles, or countless blades of grass, numberless number.

It all just comes down to this:

The three hundred sixty billion, one hundred nineteen thousand, five hundred names of the Buddha are all the same name.

Great love, great compassion: our original teacher. There is no religion here, and no one name to express it with.

And as a final capping, the Chant closes out with a practice: a mantra. A simple repetition of the original state: The mantra of original mind’s sublimity:

Om a-ri da-ra sa-ba-ha!

Om a-ri da-ra sa-ba-ha!

Om a-ri da-ra sa-ba-ha!

But must this Morning Bell Chant be practiced as a group? Is it an effective tool, and if not, can one let it go but for the inertia or structure and administration?

The Morning Bell Chant is something which shaped my practice in the early years in Cambridge, and yet I encouraged Dae Bong Sunim strongly to ditch it from the daily morning practice at Mu Sang Sah when we were first getting it started there, and building a daily schedule. I liked very much doing the chant, during practice, but I have a big mouth, and maybe it was just more room to dominate and show out. Let’s allow for this distinct possibility. But I liked it, personally, as a chant. I loved the spooling of these poems and mantras, punctuated sometimes by a simple “Klang” on the big bell. I chanted it with fervor and release, was also calm and rested by it, and clarified in practice.

Yet, I learned from doing this chant as a younger practitioner how many human beings in the room at that hour are deeply sound-challenged, or environment-challenged, just tone-challenged. I also don’t have great tonal control, and a very nasal voice from a deviated septum. But doing this chant every single day without fail seemed to be a fairly reliable killer of the energy of morning practice, for the group. In really every Zen center where I practiced, in the US and in Asia and in Europe. Unless the leader was there, which was sporadic, the groups all had a raggedly chant, disharmony. And maybe they would build something together, but then it could naturally change after a visiting teacher came and left. Quite often — it was not even noticed any more, just considered to be a natural feature of practice that this chant was a haul and a kind of get-through. It sometimes came up among monastics as a joke in the last years in Hwa Gye Sah before Dae Soen Sa Nim switched everything to Mu Sang Sah. “Should we still be doing this?” was sometimes a question. But no one ever directly confronted the accepted shibboleths of the Practice Form. I believe we had cut it at one of the last retreats at Shin Won Sah. I could be very wrong about that.

Anyway, doing this chant together, as a group-exercise, didn’t naturally jumpstart anyone’s practice. I loved to march through it, and croon, and have it have some feeling and connection for me. But the group experience would often be leaded over by some droopy stragglers, however pure-hearted. If the crew on hand that day couldn’t handle the attention-rigors of the whole, entire chant, or were mentally just half-there in the pre-dawn Dharma Room (most were ferocious), the thing just wobbled and limped so sadly it would have been better to put it out of its misery. It’s a new thing for young people coming in from listening to rap and dance music or whatever, to get any benefit of this chanting calisthenic. For many years, I’d felt that having that group-chant of such a whale had long been a deadening weight on morning practice, for a group, though individual people could still get connected on its long, sloping textures. (Again, as I most certainly did.) But it’s not about one’s inner experience alone, divorced from the harmonization of self/other through sound.

And there wasn’t just unease among the monastics in the Zen center in Korea. The chant’s tonal ranges can usually split the group anywhere it is done, with low-tone comfort and higher-tone comfort battling noiselessly wordlessly over the course of the chant, as a group. Some of my first memories of “House Meeting” in Cambridge Zen Center were the complaints and frustrations with feeling that the effect of bad “Morning Bell Chant” chanting abetted maybe by a few lost souls was dragging the room down in this way, or is too high-pitched to compensate for the valleys, it a way that some Icarus’s voice could not scale, not that early in the day. (I personally felt the latter — some people turned it into a madrigal — beautiful, but unreachable. Frustrating. And no leader on board there to make the plains clear. Weeds.)

When Mu Sang Sah started, among two things I discussed with Dae Bong Sunim would be to give the monks a great time between bows and chanting to change clothes and coverings, and meanwhile connect with a Korean environment there where they would never even conceive of chanting that with anyone. Get on to the main chants — they have pulse and power and emotion enough, beginning with the Homage to the Three Jewels. Let’s get on with it, I always felt.

And he agreed, or even already saw that. To his great credit, at the first available opportunity after that conversation, the Morning Bell Chant — as a group chant required as any other — was dropped from morning practice at Mu Sang Sah, the Asia head temple for the Kwan Um School of Zen in Asia. Certainly, he must have even been feeling the same thing for a long time, because he readily made the right decision without any hesitation. It felt like something we were both seeing similarly about the practice, the point of the practice, that perhaps I could not appreciate in him before. It is such a testament to Dae Bong Sunim’s uniqueness as a sangha leader: he has this unshakeable ability to stand in and teach and represent and sometimes defend a tradition, a School, to his last cell, but that he will also reinterpret and apply to local conditions, make a fearless decision (like coming to Regensburg twice) and yet never ever be an asshole or any kind of ego about it.

You could immediately feel the difference there: His decision to drop that requirement for daily practice changed the whole atmosphere of morning practice in the temple. So, since our discussion in the year 2000, some practitioner at Mu Sang Sah — monastic or not — chants the Morning Bell Chant solo while practitioners slowly or quickly return to the Buddha Hall after finishing bows some minutes ago in the Dharma Room, and they all chant together only the four tightly-focused chants of the regular morning practice and a “chuk won Mun” — a set of wishes for the temple. No one gets caught in the vast cobweb of the Avatamsaka Sutra’s morning chant, valley and peak alike.

At its roots, the Morning Bell Chant is actually just a solo chant. It is not for a group of people to do together. At all! It is not a capella. That is not what it is designed for. It is traditionally done solo, every single time, every single wherever in Korea it is done, ever — it is not a chant done for a chorus of non-professionals, just waking up their bodies from sleep. It is designed for virtuouso, as this recording well displays. This the official version of the chant put out by the Chogye Order — not for orthodoxy, but because the chanter is Won Myong Sunim, the Designated Living National Treasure. He is the heir of the oldest chanting traditions in Korea, a living vessel of the soulful and yet elegant Buddhist chanting of previous eras. In any event, he represents the way it is always done – as a virtuouso solo, and powerfully, soulfully so:

Here is a great recording, a really expansive version by a younger monk, for Hanmaum Soen Won.

Dae Soen Sa Nim built on these solo traditions to produce an international sangha who are all now trained soloists, by default. How and why would he allow such a contortion of chant become something that Westerners could be expected to perform daily?

The reasons are purely pedagogical, and with digital downloads and videos, are no longer relevant today at all. But here’s the history for that training method remaining slapped on out of inertia. There is a history that reveals another aspect of his teaching genius and “expedient means”:

When Dae Soen Sa Nim started teaching more actively on the East Coast from leading retreat in Providence Zen Center one weekend, to leading retreat in Cambridge Zen Center the next weekend, and then leading retreat in New Haven Zen Center the next weekend, and probably another retreat in Chogye International Zen Center another following weekend, he would leave the students behind in Zen Centers still struggling to learn chanting together, especially since he was not often in any one location for long. So, basically, he had the new Western students chant this longer chant together, to enhance its self-correcting mnemonic effect. Chanting together with him while he was present, evolved into groups chanting together without him — it might have been the only way to hold on to this rolling, soaring chant, to ride it together. He may have let it become a group-chant to enhance memory and training in it.

In any event, chanted “group” or solo, the Morning Bell Chant contains such a rich tapestry of insights and vows. I recommend its English translation to people sometimes, even though we have never once chanted it in the history of Zen Center Regensburg.

Vowing openly with all world beings,
Entering together Amita’s ocean of great vows, Continuing forever to save sentient beings,
You and I simultaneously attain the way of Buddha. Become one: infinite time, infinite space Buddha.

***

No one can say, nor say its opposite.
No one can say, because Buddha is like the Ganges’s innumerable grains of sand, or the infinite moments in all time,
or innumerable dust particles, or countless blades of grass, numberless number.
The three hundred sixty billion, one hundred nineteen thousand, five hundred names of the Buddha are all the same name.
Great love, great compassion, our original teacher.

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58d013bbe58c6272b30dad0b/t/59b04fe1607355beaace6107/1504727009881/Morning-Bell-Chant-transliteration.pdf

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